Cover story – Any time, any place, anywhere

When Nick Negroponte pontificates, others are inclined to listen. And a few years ago, when America’s leading techno visionary turned up at small hotel in Herts to outline his views on how mobile communications would transform society, the audience of IT managers – representing many of Britain’s largest companies – took solemn heed. Negroponte, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and invited by Hewlett Packard to address the conference in Bedford, was already conceptually way ahead of the mobile phone revolution which, at the time, had only just started to sweep Britain. Soon, he declared the pace of miniaturisation would allow mobile phones to be built into cufflinks heralding a new era in which users, like modern-day Dick Tracys, would bark messages into their shirt sleeves. All that was needed was adequate voice recognition software to eliminate the physical problems associated with dialling on such Lilliputian devices.

Today, Dick Tracy radio cufflinks might not yet be in common currency, but Negroponte’s other predictions are already starting to come true.

What the MIT professor, who includes the likes of deputy US president Al Gore among his friends, also posited was that terrestrial and radio communication mediums would switch functions. Instead of televisions receiving signals via an aerial, for instance, in future programmes would be delivered by cable. And whereas most phones were still dependent on land lines, in time the bulk would communicate via the ether. What Negroponte didn’t touch upon, but – like Banquo’s ghost – was a subject hovering quietly in the background, was how society itself, and more particularly working practices, might be transformed by such rapid, technological advances.

In America the concept of workers operating on the hoof, or at home, is fast catching on as bosses start to realise the many advantages – not least, the fact that they can economise on office space. Before long, it’s reckoned the bulk of office staff will have switched to teleworking, or will operate on the move with the help of laptops and cellular phones.

If such predictions bear fruit, it will not only have a radical impact on working demographics but on how society functions as a whole. If, as in the Martini mantra, mobile communications allow people to stay in touch any time, any place, anywhere, why bother with offices at all?

In the new millennium, offices – if they exist at all – may be little more than computerised nerve centres, storing data, switching multimedia messages and providing parking space for the chairman’s Bentley.

For the moment, though, companies have to deal with everyday practicalities, be it safeguarding remote access to computer sites or gauging which cellular networks best cover a sales force’s peripatetic movements. But if handling remote audio and data streams seems a logistical nightmare, it will be nothing compared to the technological complexities of marshalling video packets when they start cascading from the heavens. Laptops, for instance, can already be adapted for video conferencing purposes, in much the same way as a PC can. A cheap serial port camera, appropriate software on either end, a fast modem – and hey presto, you have two-way visual dialogue, even if the pictures are a bit stilted. The only difference with a laptop is that, if used on the open road, it has to be hooked to a suitable mobile phone.

IBM, among others, is already taking the idea one stage further: why stop at just video-conferencing when, by integrating the new capabilities of the Internet, a sales presentation to a client can include online statistics downloaded fresh from the web site? Just plug in the laptop at the client’s office, let the CD-Rom drive load up the framework Web pages, and let the modem pull down the latest data from the corporate Web server. If the client wants technical advice, use the laptop to provide him with instant face-to-face help from someone back at the office. The big drawback thus far to remote transmission of video, in particular, is that sooner or later, the modem – no matter how fast it, or the speed of its cellular network, is – has to hook into terrestrial phone links, often slowing down the sending and receiving of images to a snail’s pace.

It is here that the brave new world of satellite technology will soon dawn, albeit graced with the Big Brother image of Bill Gates. In about a year or so’s time, the first flush of some 840 new satellites will go into orbit under the Teledesic project, a $9bn venture between Microsoft, McCaw Cellular and Boeing. Apart from making the Internet and other communication mediums accessible to remote parts of the world, what Teledesic will achieve is in unclogging the problem of bandwidth, bringing fibre optic-quality comms to 99 per cent of the planet at speeds 60 times faster than today’s modems. Global video conferencing, paging, faxing and voice communications will all be possible, using the appropriate remote device fitted with a lampshade-sized antenna.

But Teledesic is just one of several satellite constellations: mobile phone giant Motorola is also pitching in with its Iridium project, which will witness the first of 66 satellites sent into low orbit in the coming months. What the systems have in common is the objective of reducing traffic of digital data down to just three hops – from the satellite to the service provider, and then to the end user, compared to conventional terrestrial routing which might involve 30 or more hops, particularly if it involves shunting data across national boundaries.

Over at Price Waterhouse, global leader of business systems Clive Walker is already investigating the possibility of using satellite comms technology, particularly in far-flung Third World regions like Kazakhstan, where making even ordinary phone calls can be a daunting challenge. But closer to home, in the comms-rich industrialised west, PW can see how remote working is already defining the shape of the workforce and, moreover, with the active encouragement of the consultancy’s management. “When it comes to mobile communications, we practice what we preach: the doctor is taking his own medicine,” says Walker. The immediate upshot is that, while the firm’s consultancy head count grew by 25 per cent last year and is predicted to rise by another 35 per cent this year, the company has found no need to increase its office space correspondingly. “We’ve not shrunk office space. But as we’ve grown, remote working has allowed us to utilise existing premises better.”

Encouraging consultants to spend more time in the field has also been a conscious decision: “We don’t believe we can serve our clients any other way,” reveals Taylor. “Remote technology has been an enabler for us.

Five years ago we wouldn’t have been able to give our consultants the same facilities as we can now. If they wanted, say, to produce a report or obtain particular information, they had to go back to the office to get it done. There was this drag away from the client’s site. But with the advent of the mobile phone and laptop – and all our 12,000 consultants globally are equipped with the latest, high-spec Pentium machines – we have been able to achieve far more.” But while the firm hasn’t opted to use its Web presence to disseminate data to consultants out in the field, it has built up a comprehensive groupware support mechanism: consultants just hook in with their laptops, and download everything from e-mail messages to general information, such as collective diary updates or economic trends.

Not that Taylor doesn’t think the Net has its uses: Price Waterhouse actively recommends it as a solution to clients who can’t afford elaborate groupware networks like Lotus Notes, as a cheaper alternative for supporting remote workers.

But as ever, concedes Taylor, the problem with feeding electronic data to consultants on the road is the speed of existing cellular networks, which brings the topic back to impending satellite technology and its promise of unclogging digital bottlenecks. PW’s technology centre in California is currently investigating the opportunities offered by new satellite networks, he reveals, and – “it will only be a matter of time before we roll it out”, though in the interim the bandwidth problem is being bridged with the help of easily portable, and data-laden, CD-Roms, particularly in network impoverished areas ` la Kazakhstan.

Taylor also concedes that remote working has some drawbacks, an obvious one being that workers sometimes feel reduced to isolated automatons whose laptop is the sole point of contact with colleagues. To foster camaraderie, PW consciously reunites field staff-running lavish staff events at least twice a year. Teleconferencing when it becomes more available with the help of satellite links might alleviate any sense of isolation. But, says Taylor, “even now, when you tap into a decent fixed link ISDN line, teleconferencing has a long way to go in terms of visual responsiveness.

Unless you already know the other person, we find the signal lag makes it difficult to build a relationship.” But, then, for some workers – especially those used to a life on the road – human contact isn’t necessarily missed, nor is there need for elaborate communication devices.

Recognition of this has spawned a whole new market based on the premise of yes, let’s use the new remote technology, but without the fancy frills.

A case in point is US software newcomer AvantGo which, seizing on the possibilities opened up by the 3Com Pilot – a pocket computer – realised they could adapt the devices to help keep truckers in touch. AvantGo’s software compresses Web pages, containing perhaps info on customer lists or filling station locations, so that they can be downloaded onto the Pilot and viewed on the road.

Other palm computers using Microsoft’s new stripped-down Windows CE operating system can also use the software and, hooked up to a modem, afford the prospect of Tom Thumb-style Web access for people who don’t want to be seen with anything resembling a laptop. But, then, there was a similar reaction to the mobile phone: initially ownership brought kudos, then they were deemed vulgar, and now they are accepted as just a tool of modern life.

Their successors, third generation mobiles, will set the pace in the new millennium, integrating European cellular standards like GSM with satellite links, and bouncing everything from e-mail messages to miniaturised video relays to all corners of the globe, far faster than ever before.

Life will never be the same again.

At the 1,400 member-strong Institute of Managing Consultants, Ria Barnabas – who sits on both the IT and marketing special interest groups – believes youngsters, reared on Nintendo games machines and mobile phones, will have few reservations about using the technology when they join the workforce. “But older office workers will certainly have to look out for themselves.”

Dave Evans is a freelance journalist

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